Amazon’s UK GC on Law Firm Relationships, Panic Buying and the Big Four

Alex Simpson became general counsel for Amazon U.K.’s management team just two months before the UK’s first lockdown. In the first six months on the job he had to deal with managing a new team, panic buying by customers and increasing interest from regulators.

Nine years of senior legal positions at U.K. supermarket chain Asda helped prepare him for the role, but he is conscious that he is still very much learning.  Simpson spoke to International about the challenges of his role, how Amazon uses legal technology and how he wants law firms to make better use of technology for clients.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You joined Amazon just before the UK went into lockdown – how was starting a new job at that time?

It was a very educational and informative because I had to pick up matters that hadn’t been looked at in the same way before. If we think about moments where UK consumers were panic buying, with loo rolls in supermarket trolleys and things like that, we had to look very carefully at things like maintaining selection, ensuring there was great prices for everybody. We had to also be very proactive with regulators who are interested in ensuring that there are good flows to customers right across the country. So that would involve everybody from the Competition and Markets Authority to Trading Standards. We were also approached by the UK government to help with Covid testing, something we hadn’t done previously. It would be quite logical for lawyers when faced with unfamiliar circumstances to say ‘well, that risk is too big, or we shouldn’t do that’. But I had the absolute opposite experience. The motivation across the UK legal division was ‘how can we make this work?’ It required an awful lot of thought and creativity right across legal teams here.

It must have been tough managing your team during that period?

You have to know yourself pretty well and understand as much what you don’t know, as what you do – and not be afraid to ask questions. Amazon is very welcoming and it’s an environment which encourages questions. I think that was enormously helpful.

What are the big legal issues keeping you up at night?

We touch on an awful lot of different legal disciplines from privacy to fake reviews to Ukraine. But the way I look at them is the broader question – what is our approach to regulatory change? Or what are our views on a certain developments in law? We’re very proactive about it. So on competition reform, we respond to consultations, we’re very transparent about our thoughts. I welcome speaking to regulators, policy bodies and those concerned to ensure that everybody gets good, simple, effective regulation.

ESG is rising up the agenda for all lawyers and all companies at the moment. How big a part of your job is that these days?

You are right that it’s an increasingly relevant part of legal work. The UK has always had a range of laws that concern disclosures, so everything from Modern Slavery to increasingly now CO2 and climate reporting. But even beyond that, I think lawyers have a really important role to play in sustainability and governance. Lawyers sit in on important meetings with business leads and they’re in a position to inform and advise. It’s important that we use our voice to talk about sustainability. One of the ways we do that here is we look at contract clauses. For example, is it appropriate that meetings should always be in-person if they require travel? Lawyers play a really critical role in supporting the progress and the speed in which society thinks about sustainability and climate change.

Do you have an external legal panel?

The process is managed globally. So firms interested in joining the preferred partner program should approach a team in Seattle. But we’re quite clear with our central teams about what we need and the types of lawyers who will be most helpful. We’re less interested in the smaller transaction by transaction [relationships]. There has to be a good volume of work. We view that relationship as very symbiotic. We work very, very closely with them. In return, the law firms get access to probably some of the most cutting-edge and exciting legal work in the country.

What do you think law firms can do better at?

The insight law firms have because of the breadth of clients they serve is enormous. I still feel that there is more firms can do to really help clients solve practical problems quickly. It will require a commitment to really looking at the breadth of the work and all the insight that comes with it, and enabling that to be put to the use of a client.

Is that through technology or better use of data?

I think technology is the enabler. At Amazon, we have dedicated teams that drive improvements in legal technology. For example, we have really innovative machine learning modules that simplify legal workflow. I think there’s a lot of anxiety created around legal technology for a variety of reasons. Sometimes people can be conservative and concerned about change and evolution, which is completely understandable, but unless things change then things get overtaken. My sincere hope is that law firms and the profession continue to do all the great work they’re doing, but take advantage of the technology available and improve it.

What about the billable hour? Does that work against this sort of technology?

The traditional model of the billable hour is still the common one in industry, for sure. But there are increasingly examples of alternatives that are resonating with clients and I only expect that to continue in the future. In addition, you’ve got the accountancy companies who are increasingly getting involved in legal services and I think they are very relevant organisations for a lot of law firms.

Do law firms underestimate the Big Four?

It’s a bit like what the supermarket’s did with with some of the discounters, like Aldi and Lidl – they are doing very well [now], thank you very much. At Amazon, we’re aware of competition, but we focus on our customers. I think if law firms take a similar approach to really to obsessing about their clients then I think they will be the ones who will be most successful.

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